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A Pound of Fleck

Banjo man extraordinaire Bela Fleck refusesto tone it down

Sure, they've got the maestro, the five-string king, Mr. Banjo, out front. He gets most of the press, and rightly so. He has, after all, taken the instrument places it's never gone before. But there's a lot more to the Flecktones than founder/plucker extraordinaire Bela Fleck. There's harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy, who blows innovative chromatic changes and melodic solos with one hand while playing keyboards with the other. There's bassist Victor Wooten, setting up the grooves with smoldering bottom lines that at times mimic Fleck's lightning patterns and at other times sound like Stanley Jordan-esque, two-handed contrapuntal riffs. And there's Wooten's brother Roy, a.k.a. Future Man, who plays a one-of-a-kind, self-designed electronic percussion instrument he calls the Drumitar (sounds like drums, looks like a guitar).

All that firepower might intimidate the casual listener, but Fleck says not to worry. "We're a very human-friendly group," he assures, "We've played together long enough to read each other's minds, and we love to challenge ourselves, but mainly we want to communicate with the audience."

They say you always remember the first time. For Bela Fleck, that seminal event occurred when he heard the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, featuring bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs on the banjo. Fleck, who, like many teen-agers in the late Sixties and early Seventies, had taken up strumming Beatles tunes on the guitar, was floored by the quicksilver brilliance of the finger-picked five-string. "Dueling Banjos," from the movie Deliverance, helped turn the infatuation into a full-blown love affair.

Unfortunately, the banjo was not held in high esteem at Manhattan's High School of Music and Art (of Fame fame), which Fleck attended. "I wasn't even that great of a guitar player," Fleck admits, "but I could play `Here Comes the Sun' really well, and that's what got me into the school. They decided to put me on what they considered to be a real instrument -- the French horn -- for which I had no aptitude whatsoever. I felt like a musical invalid. Then they needed male bodies in the vocal chorus, and they made me a tenor, which I wasn't. I couldn't read music, but I had a pretty good ear and was able to pick most of it up and fake the rest." Meanwhile, Fleck was surreptitiously taking private banjo lessons on his own, quickly becoming accomplished enough to sit in on hootenannies in some of New York's top folk clubs. Not content to play traditional banjo, Fleck began covering songs by Yes and Led Zeppelin. He was probably the first student from the prestigious high school to play the guitar breaks from "Stairway to Heaven" and "Roundabout" on the banjo.

Soon Fleck was devoting all of his time and attention to the five-string. He played in a succession of progressive bluegrass bands to pay the bills, then experimented with Charlie Parker and Chick Corea on his own. In 1981 he hit the big time, when the most progressive band in bluegrass, the New Grass Revival, invited Fleck to join. "It was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me at that point. I was a big fan of Sam Bush (Revival leader) and the fact that he worked on me for awhile to convince me to join the band was really mind-boggling." Fleck's accomplished, iconoclastic playing did little to tarnish the band's image, and with the flashy picker in their fold, the Revival went on to collect a pair of Grammy Award nominations.

The birth of the Flecktones was a happy accident. In 1988 Fleck was invited to perform on PBS's Lonesome Pine Special, with the stipulation that he depart from his bluegrass shtick. Fleck's response was to concoct a three-part program consisting of a banjo concerto with a string quartet, a computerized, banjo-sampling segment, and a brief jazz performance by the band that would eventually become known as the Flecktones. Response to the final segment was so enthusiastic that Fleck, still a New Grass blade, reassembled the Lonesome Pine outfit during a break and threw together a demo tape after only five days of rehearsal and five more of actual recording. That tape, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, was released by Warner Bros. in 1989, and quicker than Ol' Jed became a millionaire, Fleck became a Flecktone.

Today the Flecktones are one of the preeminent contemporary jazz bands in the country as well as one of the most eclectic and innovative. Touring in support of their latest release, UFO TOFU (a palindrome!), the Flecktones have ignited a round of debate among music lovers about how to classify their unique jazz/world beat/bluegrass/funk hybrid sound. A dim-witted local music writer who suggests that it doesn't sound like "a banjo album" is quickly upbraided by Fleck: "What do you mean? Of course it's a banjo album! All the songs were written on banjo!" When informed by the hapless writer that what he meant to say is that it didn't sound like a traditional (i.e., bluegrass) banjo album, Fleck relaxes and concurs. "It's all ethnic music, in a way. No matter if it's jazz, bluegrass, Irish, or world music, what I like to listen for is the spirit of creativity."

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